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Often, people get a shock when they arrive at university. The subject they may have loved at A-Level often turns out to be rather different at degree-level. If you’re interested in a degree in Chemistry, it’s probably because you enjoy some aspect of the A-Level – but is that reflected in the degree?

Chemistry at university does build upon some of the Chemistry from A-Level. However, many of the things you have accepted as ‘just fact’ in A-Level, you are now required to explain, and furthermore, some of the mechanisms you have accepted are shown to be over simplification. First, let’s remind ourselves of the distinction between organic and inorganic chemistry.

Organic vs. Inorganic Chemistry  

Organic Chemistry: This is the chemistry of carbon. It is usually seen as the chemistry of living things.

Inorganic Chemistry: Inorganic chemistry is the chemistry of everything else – usually focusing on rocks.

Importantly, there are now lots of intermediate compounds, meaning the boundaries between organic and inorganic chemistry have become thin in areas, but at University level, they are still usually taught as two distinct disciplines.  Organic Chemistry in particular builds more on the A-Level content, but you go into much more depth.

Organic Chemistry

  • Organic Chemistry does expand on your A-Level knowledge, but you are now introduced to a lot more mechanisms, reactions. You study how the electrons are moving in a reaction, which is something only briefly touched upon in A-level. 
  • Mechanisms is entirely what Organic Chemistry is made up of at university, and all the facts you learn in A-Level Chemistry become explained and underpinned by the mechanisms you study at University level.
  • At the end of your first year you also do a course on biological chemistry. This involves the study of amino acids, and how they build into proteins, and how they break down. You also look into DNA and its construction. Although this is more chemical than any biology studied in school, the topics and overall premises link to the A-Level biology syllabus.

Inorganic Chemistry

  • The inorganic course offers great variety. You construct a survey of all the properties and compounds of main group elements and transition metals. Many of the properties may be familiar from A-Level Chemistry, but the way in which they are explained is now far more developed and involved. 
  • You look at the bonding patterns in different compounds, as well as symmetry and structure of compounds. 
  • This course also involves lots of calculations, so is reliant upon good mathematical abilities
  • In contrast to Organic Chemistry, there are no mechanisms studied. They just don’t matter in inorganic chemistry, and a lot of the time the mechanisms are unknown anyway. 

Inorganic Chemistry contains lots of theories you learn at A-Level, such as the different shapes of molecules, but at University you learn why, and the different factors that affect this. 

Physical Chemistry

  • This course is the mathematics that explains all of chemistry as we know it. 
  • This subject involves studying how things work in relation to each other, but on a microscopic scale. For example, as opposed to looking at large systems such as cars going down a road, you’re looking at atoms in a box, and how the density, size and number of this will affect the situation. 
  • This course contains lots of electromagnetism, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, and it is therefore very useful to have A-Level Physics when studying this course.  
    • A-Level Physics is not a prerequisite, and any of the topics that are lifted from A-Level Physics will be explained throughout the course. 

Maths 

  • Maths is central to understanding university chemistry, and in your first year you will study it is a stand alone discipline. 
  • You will study some analysis, importantly integration and differentiation. Unlike if you were studying Maths, you will not be expected to prove the propositions you learn, although sometimes the lecturers will show the proofs to aid understanding.
  • You build upon the differentiation you learnt at school, going into partial derivatives, and inexact differentials
  • You also learn some matrix algebra, such as eigenvalues, and applying matrices to sets of four linear equations to solve for four variables. This is a very useful skill when solving chemical equations, and furthermore, matrices can be used to very well describe some chemical properties. 
  • You also study a little probability and statistics, but mainly as skills to be applied to your lab reports. 

How else will I be examined?

As well as the four courses for written examinations, you also have practical lab work that counts as coursework. At the beginning of the year you have computer labs, where Python programming is taught to you. This is then used throughout the year in your experimental labs, to help you analyse and understand the data. 

Labs are a huge part of the Chemistry degree, and the point of them is to illustrate the theoretical work covered in lectures. You will therefore have labs that correlate to the academic content you are covering. 

An example of a lab done in First Year Chemistry at Oxford:

Interhalogen Compounds: In this lab you have to use gaseous chlorine to synthesise some compounds, and then analyse the output compounds and check they behave how you would expect them to behave. You look at how they absorb UV for example, and analyse this graphically. This, like all labs, is really hands on. You get given quite a detailed procedure for what to do however, and there is guidance throughout.

After the lab you will write a report online, where you do a full write up: introduction, method, data and analysis, using the rudimentary statistics gained from the Maths course. For this lab, lots of the focus in the report will be on graphical analysis. You also have to complete an online risk assessment before all the labs you do. 

Conclusion

Chemistry is a varied degree, with a combination of practical and theoretical work, as well as plenty of maths. If you want to explore it further, take a look at our further reading for Chemistry, or if you’ve already decided, see our top tips for your personal statement.

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